This cancer survivor wants to stop kids in the Philippines from lighting up

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Turning a corner, after decades of health warnings, cigarette sales have fallen sharply in the United States and Europe, but multinational tobacco corporations are targeting huge new markets in the developing world, including countries in Asia. In a report produced with Global Health Frontiers, Hari Sreenivasan explains that in the Philippines, anti-smoking activists are now pushing back.

ACTIVISTS: We want the pictures now! Pictures save lives!

HARI SREENIVASAN: On the streets in Manila, demonstrators march against tobacco.

ACTIVIST: We want to make our voices heard.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Their cause is supported by the medical profession here.

DR. TONY LEACHON, Philippine College of Physicians: Smoking’s the number one killer in the Philippines.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Dr. Tony Leachon is the president of the Philippine College of Physicians.

DR. TONY LEACHON: For the young Filipinos, smoking is considered a macho image for men.

SMOKER: I know it’s bad — it’s bad for our health, but this is to relax myself out from work.

RACHEL ROSARIO, Philippine Cancer Society: Culturally, smoking seems to be an accepted mode of socialization, an accepted mode of relaxation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Rachel Rosario is with the Philippine Cancer Society.

RACHEL ROSARIO: There is that vision of holding a cigarette and smoking with makeup — it seems to be something that we have to fight against.

SMOKER: It’s really hard to kick the habit. I try to lessen it down, cut it, but then you always have that urge.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The fight against smoking here won a major victory four years ago when the Philippine Congress passed what is called the “Sin Tax Law”, imposing a tax that effectively doubled the price of cigarettes.

MAN (through translator): It’s expensive. It’s five pesos a stick.

SMOKER (through translator): The effect on me is I’m smoking less. It’s more expensive.

SMOKER: I used to be a pack a day, now I’m like half.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Dr. Maria Encarnita Limpin leads the framework convention on Tobacco Control Alliance Philippines.

DR. ENCARNITA BLANCO-LIMPIN, Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Alliance: From 1990 to 2008, the rate of smoking in the country has never really gone below 30 percent. The latest survey that we did in the country showed dramatic drop in the prevalence rate of smoking. This time, it is going down from above 31 percent to 25 percent. That’s a big deduction.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Private held leaders say a major reason why the sin tax law was passed was the grassroots campaign organized by cancer survivor Emer Roxas.

EMER ROJAS, Cancer Survivor: I started smoke can at the age of 17. And at the age of 44, I got stage 4 throat cancer, and that was 12 years ago. They removed my vocal cords so that the cancer would go away.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Before cancer, Rojas was a successful engineer, businessman and radio broadcaster.

ERIKA ROJAS, Emer’s Daughter: I still remember that voice when he was singing. Before, he used to sing a lot whenever there was a birthday party.

EMER’S WIFE: He loves to sing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

EMER ROJAS: That’s my favorite song.

EMER’S WIFE: Yes, I know.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Rojas says he felt he was given a second life, and he decided he would commit his life to making people aware of what happened to him because of smoking, and his family has joined him.

ACTIVIST: All of us in the family, we’re volunteers.

ACTIVIST: I want to save lives of other people. I don’t want for them to experience what we experience with Emer.

HARI SREENIVASAN: With rallies, speeches, and messaging on radio and television, Rojas developed the new voice association as a powerful advocate against smoking, especially to protect children.

DR. ENCARNITA BLANCO-LIMPIN: All of the strategies of the tobacco companies, particularly their advertising strategy. They’re all geared to hook the young children into starting smoking at an earlier age. And since of the adults would actually grow old and eventually die. And therefore, they need new market.

ACTIVIST: The children agree that cigarette smoking is really bad, right, kids? Cigarette smoking is bad.

STUDENTS: Cigarette smoking is bad.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Another new law, following examples in other countries, requires health warnings and graphic pictures on cigarette packaging.

DR. TONY LEACHON: The graphic health warnings have been helpful in other countries, and basically we’re going to use this for the young population, of course, to women as well.

SMOKER: I’ve been to some airports and they do sell those packs with pictures of throat cancer, your lungs are all wrecked up, I guess it made you think a bit, but at the end of the day, I’m, like, where’s my pack of cigarettes?

ACTIVIST: Pictures save lives!

HARI SREENIVASAN: After months of delay, and rallies like this, the law requiring graphic health warnings is now in effect. But public health advocates say they’ve not yet won the war against tobacco. Millions of Filipinos still face lifelong addiction, and the benefits from the sin tax and graphic warnings won’t be clearly evident for decades.

ACTIVIST: One, two, three —

STUDENTS: Do not smoke!

ACTIVIST: Very good!

HARI SREENIVASAN: For the “PBS NewsHour”, I’m Hari Sreenivasan.

The post This cancer survivor wants to stop kids in the Philippines from lighting up appeared first on PBS NewsHour.